When I was around twelve years old my parents bought us a pingpong table. It took up half of one side of the basement. It was a perfect place for us and neighbor kids to play especially on weekends and holidays during the long winters in Ohio.
I wasn’t very good at first and regularly lost to the older kids who came to play. Gradually, I got better by losing. I think playing against better and older players accelerated that process. One of these kids, who was four years older than me, especially delighted in beating me. He loved telling me how great he was and what a loser I was.
This kid had made up a chart to record the wins and losses of all the players along with the dates and scores. This was posted prominently on the wall and diligently maintained by this kid though I did begin to notice that not all the matches against his peers were posted. When I would ask him why his game with so and so wasn’t posted, he’d say they weren’t playing for a score or had agreed to not count that particular game.
Then came the fateful day. I beat him! OMG! You would have thought he was going to have a complete and utter meltdown right then. At first he just raged, then he raged at me, snarling that I’d just gotten lucky, that I could never do it again. When I said he needed to record this game on the chart he had created, he said he wasn’t going to because this game didn’t count, that we hadn’t agreed that we were actually playing a game. He tried to insist that we were just warming up and practicing. I persisted, saying he knew we were playing an actual game, we had kept score throughout and I had won. He refused to concede. He wouldn’t record the results of the game so I wrote it in. As soon as I finished, he grabbed the pencil and added to the space to the right of what I had logged. He wrote that he had been tired. He didn’t feel well. He let me win.
I found myself stunned by this sixteen-year-old’s response. I don’t think I said anything. I just couldn’t believe this guy was so insecure that he couldn’t stand losing once to someone he had regularly defeated. Even at twelve, I knew something was not right about this person and their response. I don’t believe I ever looked at this person the same way again.
Several years ago I belonged to a church that was struggling financially and rife with interpersonal issues in the congregation. The church leaders felt they needed someone with strong leadership qualities who could make tough decisions and stand up to some of the dissident members of the congregation. They felt that they needed someone who could “shake up” the status quo and make the theology more “relevant”. The church had once been a thriving institution and the church leaders wanted someone who would make the church great again.
The new minister came in feeling that he had a strong mandate to make sweeping changes in the structure and hierarchy of the church. In a matter of months, he had created so much turmoil and division that some of us wondered if the church would survive.
Eventually, some of the wisest and most experienced elders in the church were able to bring the waring factions together. As members began to take a closer look at what the current minister had done, there was enough of a consensus to force the minister to resign. Though this helped reduce the strife in the congregation, wounds were left unhealed and several member withdrew their membership from the church. It took several years and a number of interim ministers to finally hire one who could bring some sense of unity to the church.
This new minister was a large and jovial man with a great sense of humor. He would make jokes at his expense about how he kept having to buy new robes because the old ones kept “shrinking.” He could make fun of himself but he never criticized, mocked, or demeaned others. He created a sense of safety in the congregation that allowed for diverse opinions about church governance and theology. He was a strong leader but not rigid. He seemed to know that he was not the church. The church belonged to all members and everyone had a right to their say about how the church should function. One just felt good being in his presence. He emanated empathy and respect.
As I thought about this experience with my church, I recalled an airline tragedy that took place in March, 2015. This event was particularly upsetting to me because I had been a pilot and had flown family and friends to locations up and down the west coast of California and Oregon on vacations and fishing trips. I always took my responsibilities very seriously in planning these flights.
A Germanwings pilot, Andreas Lubitz, deliberately flew an Airbus A-320 into a mountain in the Swiss Alps killing himself, all 144 passengers, five crew members, including 16 school children and their two teachers. He had been recently declared by a psychiatrist unfit to fly due to suicidal ideation but did not inform his employer, Lufthansa. As I read the information coming from the accident investigation, it seemed to me that this wasn’t just depression. This man was angry at the world, angry that he would possibly lose his livelihood, and angry that his life had not turned out the way he wanted. It seems he didn’t care whom he harmed. If he felt he was losing something important to him, then others should suffer also. He deliberately planned his actions. He had researched how to override the cockpit locking system so the captain of the plane, who had left the cockpit momentarily, could not open it even with the security code. He put the plane on a downward glide path and ignored calls from air traffic control, shouts from the captain and screams of the passengers.
There is a third event that also came to mind. This took place in the evening of October 1, 2017. Stephen Paddock was a 64-year-old businessman from Mesquite, Nevada. From his hotel window he fired over a thousand rounds into the audience of a music festival that was taking place outside the hotel. In the space of fifteen minutes, he killed 60 people and wounded 411. A total of approximately 867 people were injured as the result of this horrific act. The shooter killed himself as police were breaking into his room.
While no clear motive was determined, it was discovered that the shooter was a heavy gambler who had experienced large losses in the previous two years. What is clear is that this man had no respect for other people and clearly meant to cause as much pain and suffering as possible before he ended his own life.
In all three of these examples there is a strong indication that there were narcissistic personality traits that governed their actions. In the case of the 16-year-old, I do know that through the years this person has had difficulty with intimate relationships. For as long as I knew him, he always had what I felt was an exaggerated sense of importance and a tendency to be cruel and demeaning.
“The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, indicates that a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, NPD, possess at least five of the following nine criteria, typically without possessing the commensurate personal qualities or accomplishments for which they demand respect and status.”
Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g. exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
Believes that they are "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
Requires excessive admiration.
Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with their expectations).
Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve their own ends).
Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of them.
Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Narcissistic personality disorder is also a significant risk factor for suicide and suicidal attempts.
Another trait of people with narcissistic personality disorder, NPD, is the way they cause a polarization in the people around them. Perhaps some of my readers have been in an organization that had the misfortune of having a NPD leader. They most likely found that there was a split in the organization between those who thought this person was the best leader ever and those who were constantly outraged and mystified by their leader’s actions.
My experience has taught me that narcissistic personalities often appear when individuals, organizations or nations are going through difficult times as they did when my church was struggling with its issues. When people are scared, they tend to seek a “strong guy” to protect them from whatever real or imagined threats they perceive. They may even cede their personal responsibility to their fellow human beings. They may accept behaviors in their leaders that, under different circumstances, they would never imagine themselves participating in. The more they perceive their leader addressing their needs and fears, the more likely they are to overlook the peripheral damage that is being done to the larger community around them. This was true in my church and I believe holds true in all organizations.
Sometimes, however, narcissistic leaders create so much harm to those who are not “true believers” that resistance arises. Sometimes this takes the form of an alliance against that person such as when multiple nations allied against Aldolf Hitler who was a sociopathic and narcissistic personality. Sometimes a church council has to remove a pastor for the good of the whole congregation. Sometimes a board of directors has to remove a destructive CEO. Sometimes an electorate has to vote out an incumbent. Almost always not everyone is happy with such actions. In these circumstances, a “win” invariably involves some form of loss. Divisions can remain. It took my church quite awhile to find the right minister to heal the congregation. This can be true of businesses and even nations.
I have been, at times, deeply skeptical about our ability as humans to overcome our fears and divisions. However, eventually, I find my faith returns to believing that human beings are capable of, “bending the arc of truth to right action”** rather than focusing on who won or who lost. There are some very wise people among us who are capable of being honest, humble and strong. They are the leaders we need to allay our fears and help us feel safe enough to accept our differences and see our humanity.
* “For What it’s Worth”, song by the group Buffalo Springfield, 1966
**Dr. Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.” I paraphrase this quote out of love and respect for him.
This was personally a difficult essay to write. It took me into the depths of human failing but then brought me back to my truth that life is sacred and ultimately wise.
I wish you all a meaningful Thanksgiving full of gratitude for all life gives us. If you aren’t with the ones you love, let them know they are loved, even those who are hard to love. Life is short even without in a pandemic. Be safe. Be well. I welcome your comments.